Chuck Close - Biography and Legacy
American Painter and Photographer
Biography of Chuck Close
Charles Thomas Close was born at home to Leslie and Mildred Close, a couple with a leaning toward artistic pursuits. Leslie Close was a jack-of-all-trades with a flair for craftsmanship; he built Charles his first easel. His mother was a trained pianist but unable to pursue a musical career due to financial constraints. Determined to provide her son with opportunities she herself never enjoyed, Mildred pushed Charles to take up a myriad of extracurricular activities during his school years and hired a local tutor to give him private art lessons.
Charles had a difficult time with academics due to dyslexia, although teachers were often impressed with his creative approach to projects. He was also diagnosed at a young age with facial blindness and a neuromuscular condition that prevented him from engaging in athletics, making the social aspects of school life difficult. Once in college, and upon deciding to make a career in art, he excelled.
Close received a scholarship to attend the Yale Summer School of Music and Art after his junior year at the University of Washington in Seattle, which facilitated his subsequent acceptance to the Yale MFA program in 1962. The challenging environment at Yale put him in competition with a host of talented peers, such as Nancy Graves, Brice Marden and Robert Mangold. Jack Tworkov, the new director of the MFA program, supported the teaching of contemporary art movements (e.g. Pop art and Minimalism) in addition to the standard focus on Abstract Expressionism; the revised curriculum indeed proved to be a major influence on Close's later work. While at Yale, Close served as a studio assistant to printmaker Gabor Petardi. In his senior year, Close won a Fulbright scholarship, providing him with the opportunity to study art in Europe.
In 1965, after completing his travels abroad, Close began teaching classes at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Deciding that his own Abstract Expressionist style of painting had grown stagnant, he began to experiment with alternative forms and materials. One of his more ambitious ideas of the time involved painting a large nude from a series of photographs, but he set the project aside due to unresolved problems with color and texture. In January 1967, the college held a solo exhibition of other Pop-inspired works by Close, sparking an outrage from the administration due to his use of full-frontal nude male images. The American Civil Liberties Union defended Close in the resulting lawsuit, brought on by the university president, John Lederle. Ultimately, the ruling was in favor of the university, a decision that effectively ended his time in Amherst.
Taking a new teaching job at the School of Visual Arts in New York City that fall, Close moved to Manhattan, where he reunited with Leslie Rose, a former student. The two subsequently married that December. Close's search for a signature style was a persistent frustration to him, and with Rose's support, he continued to experiment with different styles drawn from contemporary art. In particular, Process art was highly popular at the moment, due to the rising fame of Sol LeWitt and others. Returning to the large photographic-based nude he had begun in Amherst, Close decided to approach the problem from a methodical angle. Working again from photographs, he parsed the image into a grid, which he then transferred onto a nine-foot-long canvas. Painstakingly hand-copying the photograph's gridded segments onto each corresponding cube of the canvas, Close built a larger-than-life, black and white copy of the female nude's image. The resulting Big Nude (1967), reads as both an abstract and a figurative painting. In addition, depending on the viewing distance, the painting reads as a traditional figure drawing, or as an abstract landscape of a close up, yet barely recognizable subject.
Close's career gained momentum from the sale of a similarly conceived Big Self-Portrait (1967-68) to the Walker Art Museum in 1969, which prompted other sales shortly thereafter. Motivated by the newly-developed method of painting, he sought to refine his technique in his first "Heads" series. Also in black and white, these paintings emphasized their photographic roots. Close used the large-scale format to exaggerate the more unflattering interpretations of the camera, creating close-up views that he describes as mug shots. In December 1969, the Whitney Museum of American Art acquired a Close portrait of composer Philip Glass, and the museum also included one of the artist's works in the Whitney Annual. Earlier in the year, Close had joined Bykert Gallery, where he participated in his first New York City group exhibition with Lynda Benglis, David Paul, and Richard van Buren. Prior to the opening of the show, writer Cindy Nemser conducted an interview with Close for the January 1970 issue of Artforum magazine, which accidentally published his name as "Chuck Close." The artist subsequently adopted it as a professional moniker from that time to the present.
Searching for a way to reintroduce color to his work, Close returned to photography for inspiration. Imitating the photographic dye-transfer process, Close developed a method that utilized separate layers of cyan, magenta and yellow. Painted on top of each other, the colors compel the eye of the observer to mix them in order to arrive at a realistic, full-color image. The first portrait executed by this method was Kent (1970-71), which took Close almost a full year to complete. He spent the next several years working on three-color-process portraits, during which his first child, Georgia, was born.
In the summer of 1972, Parasol Press invited Close to produce a series of prints by any method he desired. Intrigued, Close chose the mezzotint, a virtually abandoned printmaking technique common to 18th-century portrait reproductions. Reproducing an already gridded photograph of Keith Hollingworth, the print unintentionally revealed the schematic checkerboard pattern. These unexpected results led to a Close repeated use of the same photographs for paintings executed via different techniques and in various media. Some of the more unorthodox methods he employed included fingerprinting, the use of pulp paper, and resourcing instant Polaroid, "snapshot" photographs.
Close's current method of painting originated with his pastel portraits of 1981. These portraits are derived by Closes's juxtaposing of different colors within each cube of the grid, a process critic Christopher Finch has colorfully referred to as a "pimiento-stuffed olive." The loose handling of color and richness of the pastels resulted in a lush, tactile surface, which Close maintains in his more recent work. Through more complex combinations of color and mark-making, Close's style of portraiture has also grown closer to abstraction, which makes its integrity to certain aspects of the photographic medium all the more notable.
In December 1988, Close suffered from intense chest pains that led to complete paralysis below the neck, a watershed moment in his life that the artist refers to as "the Event." With the dedication of his wife, who insisted that his physical therapy focus on the act of painting, Close was able to regain enough movement and control in his upper body to allow him to continue working. Steadily strengthening his arms, he completed Alex II (1989) during his rehabilitation period. The painting is much smaller than Close's previous works (Alex II is only 36 x 30 inches), and it conveys a sadness that the artist describes as representative of his conflicted mindset at the time. It exhibits, however, no loss of technique. Close has since built a studio to accommodate his wheelchair and a two-storey, remote-control easel, where he continues to dynamically develop his artistic processes with the help of studio assistants. Now, in his early 70s, and continuing to evolve in his artistic practices, Close has been applying his methods to the production of highly illusionistic imagery in the format of portraits of his friends, colleagues, and others.
Utilizing the modern computer-aided methods of tapestry, Close is now able to approximate, in woven images, the mirror-like illusionism characteristic of the 19th century photographic glass daguerreotype. As if coming full circle, Close may be said to have reinvigorated the genre of Photorealism just when everyone had assumed it had been relegated to history.
The Legacy of Chuck Close
Coming of age at a moment when Abstract Expressionism was still a major force in the art world and, for some, a rather inhibiting one, Close suggested that a return to a former category of painting, or realistic portraiture, could be a viable route for an artist's development. Close married this premise to his early fascination for photographic realism, focusing on the sequential and time-based process of transferring a photographic image to canvas as the conceptual premise for suggesting the construction of self identity, or the "persona," as a highly tentative undertaking, indeed despite its apparently seamless outcome. This conceptual foundation of Close's work has been his essential legacy to his many admirers and successors. The genre of portraiture itself, as well as the gridded, sequential conceptual artwork, have since the 1970s taken a very active role in avant-garde circles. The mix of the photographic sequence and its painterly reconstruction is seen early on, for instance, in the late 1970s work of Jennifer Bartlett, and it resurfaces time and again in the work of more portrait-based photographers of the 1980s, such as Cindy Sherman, Annie Leibovitz, Cass Bird, Nan Goldin, Kiki Smith, Andres Serrano, and Robert Mapplethorpe.